Why aren’t more college students involved in Milwaukee’s music scene?
Or: Why isn’t Milwaukee’s music scene involved with more college students?
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Earlier this year, I wrote a moderately scolding yet well-intentioned rebuttal to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student who felt the city was a “musical wasteland.” The student complained that the local scene was dominated by metal and cover bands (!), and that venues like Cactus Club and Club Garibaldi were tightly guarded secrets for people “in the know.” I informed him that there was more to Milwaukee than just Battle-Of-The-Bands-style metal-heads, and that the Bay View clubs he mentioned were hardly underground. But the piece took on a new life in the comments section, where folks brought up an issue that seems to bubble up every now and then, especially at the beginning of a brand-new semester: When it comes to Milwaukee’s music scene, where the hell are all the college students?
It’s a fair question—and one, I think, with a few simple answers. First off, many students don’t seek out the local music scene because they’re planning on sticking around for only a few years. They have everything they need on campus, so why bother hauling ass across town just to see a random local band? As a UWM graduate who lived in Sandburg Hall for two years (I had a single room with a terrific view of the lake, so sue me), I can attest to that sheltered mindset. Biking to Riverwest for a show was practically unthinkable; driving to Bay View was simply not an option. Better to stay on campus and see who was playing at the Union. (Answer: No one, ever.)
Another key to students’ non-involvement is that there simply aren’t enough good venues near students. Sticking with UWM (feel free to fill in the Marquette blanks in the comments below), it’s clear that the East Side ain’t what it used to be when it comes to live music. The occasionally all-ages Globe East and the always all-ages Thai Joe’s are long gone, and many of the clubs that do exist are too erratically booked to be sought-after destinations. Yes, there are signs of hope: The Hotel Foster has been slowly picking up where the Globe left off; the Miramar still does its thing; and places like the recently opened RiverView Residence Hall put UWM students closer to the action. Still, there are downsides to each of these examples: Foster isn’t all-ages; the Miramar features mostly off-brand acts; and anyone with enough scratch to live at RiverView is unlikely to be interested in the kinds of bands playing at the Riverwest Public House.
So let’s face it: Certain students will always stick to campus, and the chances of a dozen new venues popping up on the East Side are slim. The question, then, becomes this: What can we do to get college students more involved in Milwaukee’s music scene? Again, I think the answer is simple: Established bands that tend to stick to their Bay View and Riverwest comfort zones need to do a little traveling of their own and start playing places like The Hotel Foster, Y-Not III, Yield, and BBC on a more consistent basis. I saw The Celebrated Workingman put on a pretty fantastic show at Yield earlier this year, and the place was lousy with people who would probably never dream of seeing that band anywhere else. Juniper Tar’s recent residency at The Hotel Foster was stuffed with family and friends, but surely some of the folks in the crowd had stumbled in from North Ave., only to discover an amazing local band they hadn’t previously heard of. Think of it as an “Ask not what your uninvolved college student can do for you…” kind of deal.
Of course, it’s important to note that many students are active in the local music scene. The Fatty Acids—arguably one of the city’s best bands—are out of UWM. The school is also responsible for the excellent Cream City Soundcheck documentary series, which has covered everyone from Paul Cebar to Holy Shit! And the UWM Post continues to be a terrific champion of local and national acts. It’s clear that there are plenty of new bodies patiently waiting to lose themselves in the city; when it comes to Milwaukee’s music scene, maybe it’s time for Milwaukee to come to them.